What Do I Think About the Hebrew Bible?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

14th century CE copy of the Bible (Source: Wikipedia)

Previously, I posted about how we can think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. As I continue this series, I plan to continue exploring this question. Although it may not seem important, one of the most important things we can do first is ask ourselves a question: what do I think of the Hebrew Bible? Preconceived notions of the Hebrew Bible will often times guide how we read and understand the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, this can happen across the spectrum. In order to demonstrate this, I will offer thoughts from both sides of the spectrum. I know these are not representative of everybody. I use these generalizations in order to make the point that we have to think about what we think of the Hebrew Bible, regardless of where we stand.

On the far right, we have conservative groups. These groups may be Christian or Jewish. Often times, when more conservative readers approach the Hebrew Bible, there is a preconceived notion that the text of the Hebrew Bible is holy in some manner. Being holy, it will speak the truth. Therefore, what we see in the bible is probably historically accurate.

Naturally, this view is not necessarily wrong. As I pointed out previously, some parts of the Hebrew Bible may be historically reliable. Other parts of it may not be historically reliable. So, in one sense, it is good that conservative groups automatically assume the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. Many part of I and II Kings, for example, are historically reliable.

However, this view is also problematic. Think about, for example, Genesis 1:1-2:4. Many would argue that this text reflects and records the history of how God created the universe. When we look the Hebrew Bible’s historical context, though, it becomes apparent that there are many versions of how deities created the world and established kingship. Historically, these texts were never meant to present a material history of exactly how the deity created; rather, they were meant to demonstrate that the deity was a legitimate ruler. In other words, the goals was not to write history.

Therefore, it is problematic to see Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a historical account of how God created the world. I make this claim  based on the historical context of Genesis 1:1-2:4.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, we have people who are strongly opposed to religion. And the Hebrew Bible is a religious book. Therefore, we should be extremely skeptical about it [1]. In reading the Hebrew Bible, they may be substantially more skeptic about accepting anything in it as historically reliable. This approach, of course, is valuable. Like I posted previously, some part of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely not historical. Genesis 1:1-2:4, for example, is myth. It is not history.

However, some part of the Hebrew Bible are historically reliable. So, viewing the Hebrew Bible entirely skeptically is problematic. Consider, for example, II Kings 18-19. In this passage, we see an account of Sennacherib attacking Jerusalem. What is more, we also have written documentation by Assyrians during that period which reference this attack upon Jerusalem. Although both texts differ in how they understand the event, they nonetheless point to the same event. Therefore, we should be cautious to quickly dismiss the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible.

In either case, whether conservative or liberal and strongly opposed to religion, we must recognize that we often read our own preconceived notions and ideas into the Hebrew Bible. These notions may sometimes be valuable, such as skepticism of the historical reality of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Or, on the other side, acceptance of the historical reality of Kings. In either case, the reader needs to be critical not just of the text; rather, the reader needs to be critical of where they come from.

By asking ourselves, “What are my preconceived ideas about the Hebrew Bible,” we are able to approach it critically. We are able to ask questions which we normally wouldn’t ask. Only by doing this are we able to think about the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible [2].

[1] Please let me know if this is totally inaccurate. This was not my background. So, it is more difficult for me to explain.

[2] This is a constant process. No matter how long one has been reading the Hebrew Bible or studying the ancient Near East, we must constantly ask ourselves what our own preconceived notions are.

Is the Hebrew Bible a Historically Reliable Text?

The following is a draft which I am developing for Ancient History Encyclopedia. Although I will be writing on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is problematic for many, scholars and non-scholars alike. In particular, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of ancient Israelite religion is problematic. Thus, I wrote this piece to undergird my presentation of ancient Israelite and Judean Religion. As I proceed, I will add more layers to the issue. My goal, though, is to make the information comprehensible. 

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is a complex issue. In order to decide whether or not it is historically reliable, we must pay close attention to the text, archaeology, and other literature from the ancient Near East. After analyzing the Hebrew Bible alongside other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology, we can make an informed decision as to whether or not we should utilize the Hebrew Bible for understanding the history in the regions throughout the Levant (the Levant is the area encompassing modern day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

800px-targum

Source: Wikipedia

In seeking to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, though, we must take three factors into consideration. First, we must consider that the Hebrew Bible was not originally written and composed as a single document; rather, it is an anthology of ancient writings. The ancient writing were written by many authors, over a long period of time. Thus, any attempt to answer the question must consider the varying degrees of historically reliability of texts within the anthology. Some texts may be historically reliable. Some texts may not be historically reliable.

Second, we must consider the length of time over which the Hebrew Bible was developed. As Sara Mandell notes, the history of the Hebrew Bible is “a historically late, redacted composite that presents the diverse religious and historical perspectives of its several layers of editors.”[i] In simpler words, the Hebrew Bible consists of texts which were edited by many people. By the time of the earliest, fully compiled version of the Hebrew Bible (c. 300 BCE), the text had been developed and edited for nearly 600 years. Because it was developed over such a long period of time, it contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 10th century BCE. Yet, it also contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 3rd century BCE. So, when we think about whether or not the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable, it is essential that we recognize that it was written and edited over a long period of time and in many different historical contexts, not just one.

Third, the Hebrew Bible is not just history. Within the Hebrew Bible, there are many different genres of texts. For example, the Psalms contains liturgical hymns used in temple contexts, lamentations, personal prayers, and many other genres of literature. Additionally, texts like 1 and 2 Kings are historiography, historiography being an attempt to tell history through a particular worldview. In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the author(s) viewed the history through a theological lens. In addressing the historically reliability of the Hebrew Bible, then, we must think about the genre of text. Would one read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) like it is a poem? Absolutely not. Darwin’s book is about scientific observations. It does not fall within the genre of poetry. Likewise, we should be aware of the genre of text we read within the Hebrew Bible. By doing so, it can help us to understand how relevant the particular text in terms of its historical reliability.

To summarize, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is not a simple question to answer. We must take into consideration archaeology, other ancient literature, and the complicated nature of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is, after all, (1) an anthology of many texts and traditions from the ancient Levant. (2) These texts were developed over a period of nearly 600 years! 600 years ago from 2017, the USA did not exist, France was not established as a country, and the events which inspired some of Shakespeare’s plays were still taking place. In other words, a lot can happen in 600 years, both in Europe and the ancient Levant. Within the anthology of texts composed over a long period of time, namely the Hebrew Bible, (3) things were written in many different genres. By being aware of different genres, we can think about how we should read the text. Should we read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a story? Or should we read it as a history like Edward Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? These are pertinent questions and considerations when thinking about whether or not a text within the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable.

 

[i] Sara Mandell, “Israelite Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism, vol. II.

Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation by Everett Ferguson

Everett Ferguson’s textbook of Church history, covering the first 14 centuries of the Church, thoroughly and clearly introduces the reader to characters, issues, and events within Church history. Although there remain questions by the end of the book, he continuously focuses on the historical-theological issues as it regards various characters and major events. For questions to remain, though, is reasonable because it is a textbook designed for university students.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the book is its effectiveness as a textbook. This previous semester, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation was my textbook for an independent study class. Through it, I was able to familiarize myself with various theological issues and political power struggles through the evolution of the Church. Although it was a challenging read, often requiring the reader to connect ideas from one chapter to a previous explanation/basis found in another chapter, it was nonetheless beneficial and informative.

Although he successfully provides a historical framework, as is his stated goal (25), Ferguson could have done one thing to improve the reading experience: more clearly mark why certain things were significant within the historical context. Although he does do this, explanation is generally included within a flowing historical presentation. As one not well read in Church history, this made in challenging is attempting to understand what the primary points were.

In conclusion, Everett Ferguson’s Church History is a fantastic introduction to the historical community called “the Church”. His discussion and openness about the multitude of elements within Church history shape a solid historical framework by which readers may operate from in the future, in whatever direction he/she chooses.

Click here to purchase Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, vol. 1, by Everett Ferguson.